Local educators honored for their work against antisemitism
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Shining a lightLocal educators only 2 of 12 honored nationally

Local educators honored for their work against antisemitism

“You can’t teach the Jewish story in isolation.”

2023 Shine A Light on Antisemitism Civic Courage Award winners Catlyn DiPasquale (Photo by Brian Cohen) and Michele Russo. (Photo provided by Shine A Light)
2023 Shine A Light on Antisemitism Civic Courage Award winners Catlyn DiPasquale (Photo by Brian Cohen) and Michele Russo. (Photo provided by Shine A Light)

Shaler Area High School teacher Catlyn DiPasquale feels a responsibility to teach about the humanity that emerged during the Holocaust.

“We’re talking about the human story. You feel a calling to tell this story, to get it right and to do the topic justice,” she said.

Michele Russo, a teacher at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School, believes it’s imperative that students learn how the Holocaust relates to the present day and civil rights.

“I think it’s important they see the whole thing and just don’t learn about the Holocaust in isolation,” she said.

Both DiPasquale and Russo are recipients of the inaugural 2023 Shine A Light on Antisemitism Civic Courage Award. They are the only two high school educators to receive the honor, joining five other winners, including educators from elementary schools to universities, as well high school and college students.

The two also are among only 12 educators who were honored nationally.

DiPasquale has taught Shaler’s Holocaust elective for the last five years and manages her area’s LIGHT (Leadership through Innovation in Genocide and Human Right Teaching) Center. She was recently honored as a Righteous Among the Neighbors by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

Like Russo, DiPasquale believes teaching about the Holocaust extends beyond that period of history.

“I think it’s important to teach not only about the event itself but some of the things happening today,” she said, “because antisemitism didn’t end with the Holocaust. It also didn’t begin with the Holocaust, so it helps kids put into context some of the things happening today.”

“Everybody has a story, and everybody is important,” DiPasquale continued, noting that when she has survivors speak to her students, it’s “the most impactful thing I could ever do. They can teach the kids more in 15 minutes than I could teach in a whole semester.”

In a district without a lot of diversity, DiPasquale feels these types of lessons help prepare students for the world they’ll face after graduation.

Russo, who has made it her mission to teach about marginalized groups, has been committed to combating hate and antisemitism. She is an ambassador with the Light Education Initiative and partners with student-led organizations to discuss inclusion, acceptance and tolerance. She traveled to Poland with Classrooms Without Borders in 2022 and spent time earlier this year in the South, learning more about the Civil Rights Movement.

The English teacher, who reads Elie Wiesel’s “Night” each year with her students, said she teaches about the “pyramid of hate,” a concept taught by the Anti-Defamation League that shows how biased behaviors grow in complexity and are supported by lower levels of hate.

She also has a former skinhead speak to her class.

“I don’t like teaching things in isolation,” she offered as the reason for combining lessons about current incidents of hate with the Holocaust. “You can’t teach the Jewish story in isolation.”

Learning about the Holocaust, Russo said, will help prepare students for life after graduation.

“LGBTQ is part of that,” she said. “When people say I teach about antisemitism, I don’t know if I do. It’s part of the whole story that I teach. We’re teaching students how to be citizens.”

Shine A Light representative Lauren Multer said the idea for the award came out of a conversation at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“Somebody said they wanted to highlight the amazing work people were doing in this field, or acting as upstanders and demonstrating what it means to call out hate and stand up for the Jewish community in their school system,” she said.

Shine A Light received “amazing applications” from its100-plus partner organizations, nominating people who go above and beyond their professional duties, Shine A Light representative Megan Nathan said.

“We were thrilled with the kind of work that people are doing and we’re hopeful that their stories, which are now on our website, can serve as inspiration for other people and leaders in the community,” she said.

Despite the troubling times, Nathan noted, the nominations showed that there are people doing incredible things in the face of challenge and adversity.

“It was really the brightest part of our day to be able to read through these applications and wish that we could give awards and thank yous and recognition to everyone, because it’s so important that this work is taking place right now,” she said.
That recognition includes not only the publicity that comes with winning the award but also $2,000.

Shine A Light, she explained, is an initiative of a group of more than 100 community partners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have all signed on with the conviction that collective action is the most effective way to address antisemitism in the United States and Canada.

Pittsburghers saw the initiative’s logo on electronic billboards last December as part of a campaign that featured jarring messages like “You’re not like other Jews,” “I would’ve never guessed you’re Jewish. You’re so cool,” and “Did you see the diamond on her finger? It’s huge! But what do you expect? She has a Jewish fiancé.”

The meaning of the billboards eventually became clear in the last few slides with messages like “If you don’t think the Holocaust happened, maybe Jews aren’t your issue. Maybe history class is,” and “Antisemitism is bad for everybody. It starts with the Jews…but never ends there.”

Both DiPasquale and Russo said they don’t do their work for awards. Still, they were thrilled to learn of the recognition.
DiPasquale said it feels odd being recognized for doing what feels like the right thing to do.

“I was really honored, totally not expecting it,” she said. “It’s important that people see that other people are doing this and care about people in the community and about humanity.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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